Democrats Flirting With Disaster in Louisiana — Again

Posted March 24, 2004 at 3:20pm

While Democrats gaze longingly at GOP-held Senate seats in Oklahoma, Colorado and Alaska, they seem to have conveniently forgotten a developing headache in Louisiana, which, when it comes to Senate seats, has been the most reliably Democratic state in the nation. [IMGCAP(1)]

Every state in the nation has sent at least one Republican to the Senate since the direct election of Senators was instituted by the 17th Amendment in 1913 — with the sole exception of Louisiana. That could change later this year.

National Democrats understand that they must keep their own losses to a bare minimum to have any chance of taking back the Senate in November. With Democratic open seats in both Carolinas and Georgia already at great risk, they simply cannot afford to lose Louisiana.

But the Democrats’ outlook in the Bayou State deteriorated markedly earlier this month when state Rep. Arthur Morrell, a 10-year veteran of the Louisiana House and a two-term chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, entered the race for the seat held by retiring Sen. John Breaux (D). Morrell was former presidential hopeful Howard Dean’s state chairman.

The 60-year-old state legislator, who holds a law degree from Southern University and was a paratrooper in the Army Special Forces during the 1960s, becomes the fourth major candidate in the race, joining Reps. Chris John (D) and David Vitter (R) and state Treasurer John Kennedy (D).

The state’s open primary means that the top two finishers in the Nov. 2 election will meet in a December runoff if no candidate wins a clear majority in the initial balloting. And that’s the problem for Democrats.

As the only Republican in the contest, 1st district Congressman Vitter is almost certain to make the runoff. The other three hopefuls will therefore be competing against each other for the other spot in the December election. If Morrell can lock up most of the African-American vote, he could win a place in the runoff.

The state’s 1995 gubernatorial race serves as the best example of the Democrats’ potential problem this year.

Six credible candidates ran in that contest, including the first-place finisher in the open primary, Republican Mike Foster. Four of the next five finishers were Democrats, but the only African-American in the bunch, state legislator Cleo Fields (D), nosed out fellow Democrat Mary Landrieu for the other spot in the runoff.

Foster then walloped Fields 63 percent to 36 percent in the runoff. Four years later, the governor won re-election over another African-American, Rep. Bill Jefferson (D), 62 percent to 30 percent.

Of course, Morrell will need strong support from the minority community and a big black turnout to make the runoff, neither of which is guaranteed.

But there are a couple of reasons why the turnout problem might not be as daunting for Morrell as you might think.

First, the open Senate primary is the same day as the presidential election, which should drive voter turnout. Second, Democratic candidates in at least three Congressional districts — the open 3rd and 7th districts and Rep. Rodney Alexander’s competitive 5th district — will be taking steps to boost African-American turnout, since black turnout could well determine which party prevails in all three of those House races.

You can bet your mortgage that Democratic officials will deny it (often indignantly), but party pooh-bahs are certain over the next few months to try to persuade Morrell to abandon his Senate bid. And if that fails, they may look for a way to divide the black vote, thereby improving the chances that either John or Kennedy will make the runoff.

The problem for national Democrats is that relations between black and white Democratic politicians in the state have not been ideal for some time. Fields believed (rightly or wrongly) that Landrieu didn’t support him enthusiastically in his statewide race, and he has returned the favor.

Ultimately, of course, black voters in the state have voted Democratic, which is why Republicans have often lost runoffs — and why the last Republican to represent the state in the Senate served during Reconstruction.

Still, the Democrats have had a number of very close calls in the state, including both of Landrieu’s Senate victories. She drew just 50.2 percent in her 5,788-vote victory in 1996 and only 51.7 percent in her 42,012-vote win two years ago. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) also had a narrow, come-from-behind win last year, when even the most experienced Democratic political veterans expected her to lose the runoff.

Louisiana’s history in Senate elections is clear, and the Democratic Party’s dominance can’t be explained merely by chance. But this year’s Senate contest presents particular problems for the party. One of these times, the Republican is going to win. It could be this year, and that would be a particular problem for Democrats.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.